Fetching Grace

Mephibosheth.  Sound that one out, then imagine yourself with the burden of that name hanging around the neck of your life.

Mephibosheth was Jonathan’s son. David found him when he went looking for a way to make good on a promise he’d made to Jonathan years before. It was a vow to honor Jonathan’s family — any time, any place. One day long into his reign as king, he goes to the palace staff and asks (2 Samuel 9:1), “Is there anyone still left of the house of Saul to whom I can show kindness for Jonathan’s sake?” At the question, someone remembers Mephibosheth.

His name, by the way, means “shameful thing.”

Mephibosheth had bad feet. When he was five years old, a nursemaid dropped him or let him fall and somehow his feet were damaged. So now, here is a boy named Shameful with feet that don’t allow him to play with the other kids or follow in his warrior-father’s footsteps. After his father’s death, they did with him what they often did with kids like him. They sent him off to someone willing to keep him as a servant for the cost of room and board.

So a guy named Shameful who is labeled as Lame gets shipped off to a place called Lo Debar, which means “place of no pasture,” or sometimes, “place of no word.” No word.  No blessing.  No intelligence.  No honor.  This is where Mephibosheth lived.

Then, completely out of the blue, King David sends for him. The Hebrew word used here literally means something like “fetch.” Someone has called this act of David fetching grace. Don’t you love that? It reminds me of Jesus’ word to his followers: “You did not choose me, but I chose you …”

When Mephibosheth was presented to David, the king said, “Don’t be afraid, for I will surely show you kindness for the sake of your father. And I will restore the land that belongs to your family.” The story ends with Mephibosheth living in Jerusalem, eating at the King’s table.

And this is the place in this Old Testament story where Jesus shows up. As I consider Mephibosheth coming to live with David, I realize there is no miraculous healing. David doesn’t hire great doctors to fix him up. Mephibosheth comes as he is and as he is he is welcome at the table of the King.

Welcomed, not as a servant but as a friend.

In that scene, Jesus says to us also, “You don’t have to be different than you are to sit at the table and be part of the things I have for you. We are not all sitting around waiting for you to be better, different, healed. You have been chosen as you are, loved as you are.”

Transformation will come in the nourishing, of course (we are Methodists, after all, who believe sanctification is the other half of salvation). But transformation begins with an invitation to the table. Come as you are.

And right here, right now, I want to thank Jesus for that word. Isn’t that exactly what he did for me? For you? After the resurrection, he showed up to this woman who would have been an outcast in her world, once crippled by demons. He showed up to her and her circle, and to those guys walking down a road toward their house in Emmaus. The story says, “He was known in the breaking of the bread.” He was known at the table, in the conversation, in the moment.

Jesus came bearing the inestimable power of friendship. He comes bearing a rare kindness, for the sake of the Father, saying things like, ““Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. ”“I no longer call you servants, I call you friends.” “You didn’t choose me, but I chose you.”

Friendship is the gift of the Kingdom. Jesus came to us as friend, and invites us to befriend people in authentic ways. This is how the gospel gets rooted. It gets rooted in the soil of community and it bears the fruit of friendship.

(This story is also part of the Encounter Jesus study, available at seedbed.com)

Read More

The difference between repentance and saying you’re sorry

Forgiveness is the centerpiece of our gospel. It is half the gift God offers through the cross, the other half being an invitation into the fullness of life.

Repentance is how we receive that gift. The word has a bad reputation these days. It has been yelled far more often than taught, so it has gathered more shame than freedom as it has rolled through the Church. Which is a shame in itself, because repentance is a far cry from shame-producing. To the contrary, it is yet another freedom word in the vocabulary of Christ.

To repent means to make a conscious decision to change behavior away from immaturity and repentance2toward maturity. It is a decision to walk out of dysfunction and toward health. Repentance frees us up to more joyfully live into our created design as it shakes off of us the destructive behaviors that cling so tightly and hold us captive.

In its most spiritual sense (which is its deepest definition), to repent means to turn away from something that offends a good, holy, loving, wise God. We do this not because God will strike us dead if we don’t, but because offending a good and loving God is not life-giving. To repent means shifting gears, making a genuine choice to practice life so that we (our whole selves) become an offering pleasing to God. We become no longer our own, but His. That thing we did becomes no longer ours but His.

True repentance releases us from shame and guilt that too often distort our decisions and behaviors and send our lives down dead-end paths.

But here’s the thing: for real repentance to happen, there has to be a willingness to let something go. There has to be a death to our self-centered tendencies. Humility (the primary personality trait of Jesus, always characterized by self-sacrifice) is the fruit of genuine repentance. It is very much what Jesus meant when he advised his friends, “If anyone wants to be my follower, he must take up his cross and follow me.” There is more to repentance than just saying, “I did it,” or “I’m sorry.” When practiced, authentically, there is a transformation proven by a character shift. What happens after we repent proves the sincerity of repentance itself. Humility surfaces, showing up beneath the words in some unmistakable way. In an honest act of repentance, the watching world sees a spiritual shift in one’s relationship with God, with others, with oneself.

Let me say again: In genuine repentance, something has to die. 

You see the point in Jesus’ story about the prodigal son. When the rebellious son first went to his father, he was bent on getting something for nothing. He said to his dad, “I don’t want to wait until you die. I want my share of the estate now.” Somehow he wanted to receive death benefits without death, but there is no shortcut.

Even Jesus asked (remember? on the night before he died?) if it could be done any other way. The answer is no. In order for true forgiveness to happen something has to die. Jesus said (John 12:24), “I tell you the truth, unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” This is the great news on the other side of repentance. If we’ll fully submit to the act of it, we will find such progress on the other side. But as Psalm 23 teaches, we can’t get to the feast on the mountaintop without first walking through the valley.

There is no shortcut to fruitfulness.

That’s what I’m waiting for in stories of people apologizing for things misspoken or for misbehavior that doesn’t honor their best or benefit anyone. I am looking for a spirit of Isaiah, for a deeper understanding of Paul’s truth. There is something to be said for sober judgment, for falling down before God in an honest recognition of our imperfect state, with a less arrogant defensiveness. There is something attractive about a sincere acknowledgement that we’re on a journey … and not there yet. I’m not talking about self-flagellation (a false humility that belittles us). I’m talking about eyes-wide-open reflection on the distance between our current reality and what is true, noble, pure, lovely, admirable.

Yes, we are free, but not free to do as we please. To think otherwise is to completely miss the point of true community.

I guess what I’m looking for in those who lead, in those who serve, in those who live in Christian community is a little holy humility. I’m looking for a death worthy of repentance. And what I’m asking of others — I realize even as I’m writing this — I must also be willing to do within myself.

Lord, have mercy.

Are you practicing the art of repentance, transparently confessing before God areas of offense in your life, so you can experience freedom?

Read More

How to start a revolution

In Jesus’ day, according to N.T. Wright, a man talking about building kingdoms was a man stirring up a revolution. Having endured political upheaval and oppressive rulers more than once, Israel would experience Jesus’ call for a new kingdom as quite the revolutionary act.

In fact, it was, though not political.  Jesus’ revolution began within the heart. His call was for people to overthrow the oppressive and self-seeking kings who ruled over their minds and hearts, usurping the place of God at the center. He called on people to rise up with the subversive act of repentance.

“Repent and believe,” he proclaimed, “for the Kingdom of God is near.”

Knowing that all repression and oppression have sin at their core, Jesus promoted societal transformation through personal transformation. Repentance was a call to turn from self-centered, power-hungry behavior toward the life oriented around the values of a loving, good God.

Real repentance is a revolutionary act. It calls for death to self, It is what Jesus meant when he said, “If anyone wants to be my follower, he must take up his cross and follow me.” To build God’s Kingdom, we must be willing to die to self.

Of course, we’d rather receive death benefits without death, but there is no shortcut. Even Jesus asked on the night before he died if it could be done any other way. The answer was no. In order for true forgiveness to happen something had to die. There is no shortcut to fruitfulness. The path always runs through repentance, and repentance always calls for the death of anything that stands between us and God’s best.

Repentance is freedom-producing. There is such freedom when I finally, fully speak aloud my own truth and discover God’s response is not condemnation but grace. To speak your worst out loud and find that God has not wiped you off the face of the earth, but instead picks you up and carries you into the presence of Grace is the greatest freedom.

Repentance is the opposite of shame. Have you learned how to repent without humiliating yourself? Does your habit of repentance reveal a healthy understanding of the character of a loving God? After all, there is no shame in Christ. He is not afraid of our sin or our suffering. He wants to deliver us from it because he loves us. The more transparent we are with ourselves and Christ, the more likely we are to find healing in his wings.

Repentance is an act of honesty. Real repentance is the most truthful act we can enter into. It is not self-flagellation or self-hatred but the simple proclamation that my only way forward runs through a God who is both grace and truth.

Repentance does not generate self-hatred. To the contrary, it is recognizing that until I am honest about my own weaknesses, I can’t be honest about my strengths. Some of us have lived in denial for so long we’ve forgotten what is true. Or if we are addicted, we swim in outright lies (this is a fundamental truth: active addicts lie). Our dishonesty creates a barrier to change.

Repentance creates change. It is not at all simply saying we’re sorry. It is a personal decision to do things differently from this point forward. Repentance doesn’t require me to have a complete roadmap out of this pit I’ve dug, but it does require me to want to get out of it.

Repentance is not the same as confession. It is the completion of it. Plenty of people have confessed to things they aren’t sorry for. How many parents have forced unrepentant children to say “I’m sorry”? We’re conditioned for this. But repentance is not God forcing me to say I’m sorry. It is my honest, transparent, humble recognition of sin as sin, followed by my desire to turn from it and move in a different direction.

I have discovered in my own prayers that there are plenty of things in my life that I can name, that I know ought to be different than they are … but I can’t seem to change my direction. I lack the will or the “want to.” In those cases, I have learned a new prayer: “Lord, repent me, for I cannot repent myself.  I cannot turn myself around. Only you can do that, Lord, when your Spirit chooses. Repent me, and make me new.”  

Revolutions begin, not with being able to name all the sins, but with being able to name my sin.

This is where personal revolutions begin, according to Jesus: Repent and believe. A new Kingdom is near.

 

Read More

Joy is a mark of holy living.

The Institute for Ethics at Duke University did an online survey of about 1500 people as part of a project designed to measure the morality quotient of Americans. They asked people to rate how likely they’d be to do certain morally questionable things. Like, kick a dog in the head. As it turns out (happily), seven of eight respondents would refuse to do that and in fact, would turn down any amount of money up to $1 million to kick Fido in the noggin.

However, half of the participants said they could be motivated to throw a rotten tomato at a politician they dislike. For free. I guessing not all those respondents are pagans.

(Surely, you’ve heard the old joke about the shipwreck survivor they discovered on an uncharted island. The ship that spotted him sent a rescue team to shore and found the man alone among three huts. They asked what the three huts were for, since there was no one else around. The survivor explained, “Well, I live in one and go to church in another.” “What about the third hut, then?” asked a rescue team member. “Oh, that,” growled the man. “That’s where I used to go to church.”)

Lots of us haven’t managed to master Paul’s advice: “As far as it depends on you, live peaceably” (Romans 12:18).

But you say, “You don’t know what this person did to me. You don’t know my circumstance — how hard I’ve had it and how much it hurts.” But if it all depends on circumstance, we are right back to a works-based religion, the kind Paul said kills spirits. If your acceptance of me depends on me, I’m sunk. I can’t be that good. If your acceptance of me is grounded in what Jesus has done for you, there’s hope.

Because, frankly, you haven’t been that good, either.

This is great news on two fronts: I don’t have to wait for folks to act right so I can have peace; nor do circumstances control my capacity for joy. C. S. Lewis, in his book, Christian Maturity, writes this:

“The real Christian is the most natural person in the world. He has natural joys, natural gaiety, natural laughter, natural culture, natural grace—he is a man reduced to simple naturalness. When one is not living the Christian way all his pleasures have to be induced—induced by entertainment from without, by liquor, by stimulation of various kinds. They have to try to have a good time. I don’t try to have a good time—I just have one, naturally and normally. A simple, bubbling gaiety from within, what Rufus Moseley called “the Divine frisky.” As you get cleaned up and cleaned out within, you develop a hair-trigger laugh—one with which you can laugh at yourself if you cannot laugh at anything else.”

How attractive that is! To be known for the infectiousness of your laugh rather than the accuracy of your tomato-tossing, to have your mood drawn up from deeper wells than whatever has just happened. Wouldn’t it be something to be known for that, rather than the contentiousness and moodiness that too often define our average, proud lives? Don’t you think this is what Jesus was after when he called us to live his commandments, “that my joy may be in you, that your joy may be full” (John 15:11)?

Joy is a mark of holy living.

I’m “convicted,” as they say, by the stunning gap that separates my reality from this vision, but I’m also smitten by this notion of “the Divine frisky.” I’d like to be known for my capacity to find joy in any circumstance, to be at peace whatever the cost to my pride.

I’d like them to say at my funeral, “She had the best laugh!”

Read More

Let’s take the world by force

Jesus never moves far from the topic of the Kingdom of God.  He is always trying to get us to see it, grasp it, embrace it.  It is like a seed, like soil, like leaven, like something valuable buried in a field. Something ordinary, sometimes hidden, that possesses an unexpected strength.

In the book of Matthew, Jesus uses a word that reveals yet another surprising thing about the Kingdom.  He says, ‘From the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of God has suffered violence and the violent take it by force” (Mt. 11:12).  Another version phrases it this way:  “The Kingdom has been forcefully advancing, and the violent take it by force.”

The Greek word used here is biazetai.  Depending on how you use it in a sentence, it can have either of the meanings noted above (“suffering violence” or “forcefully advancing”), though they are markedly different.

So which is it?

Is the Kingdom of God suffering passively, enduring the violence of a non-believing world until the day when it finally conquers? Or is the Kingdom of God actively, forcefully pushing through, refusing to take no for an answer, refusing to be laid aside by people who are surprised by the way it looks?  Refusing to be distracted by … us?

Which is it? Is it suffering violence or forcefully advancing?

Tim Tennent says the answer is yes.*  The Kingdom of Heaven suffers the violence of people who don’t get who Jesus really is. The Kingdom suffers the violence of laziness, the violence of unbelief, of hard hearts and broken hearts. The Kingdom suffers the violence of the dark, of a kind of deafness to the sound of holiness.

But the Kingdom never quits coming. It never gives up, never gives in, never lets go, never loses sight of the work. If John (and we) wants to understand how the Kingdom of God forcefully advances, tell him this: The blind see, the lame walk, the dead are raised, the possessed are set free and the good news is preached to the poor.

That’s why John was asking questions. Because this isn’t what he expected. He (and we) want force to look like force. We want Jesus to kick butts and take names. But instead, God’s Kingdom forcefully advancing looks more like average people talking over coffee, telling stories of transformation. “This is how Jesus changed my life.”  

It looks like someone taking a box of food to single mom simply for the privilege of praying with her for better days. It looks like groups of people quietly gathering in buildings to bind up broken hearts and proclaim freedom to captives. It is people praying it forward, praying hopefully toward the day when there is no more pain, no more tears, no more racism, no more adultery, murder, divorce, anger, unrighteous judgment.

This is how the Kingdom comes. It comes in the willingness of ordinary souls to make room and time for the gentle practice of caring for souls so no one is left behind. It is seeds, leaven, oil, a cup of water, time, patience, stories.

That’s the force of it and for a lot of people that’s an offense.  It simply isn’t what we expect.

But that, Jesus seems to say, is how it is done.

 

* Some years ago, I heard Dr. Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, preach on this verse and his remarks have stayed with me.

 

Read More

Jesus changes everything.

Think about the impact of one child’s birth in Bethlehem on the world we live in today. It is stunning to remember just how radically that one life has altered human history.

Jesus’ take on the value of life changed how we value children. Google “Jesus and children” and you’ll find a menu of articles, some of them claiming that Jesus basically invented children, in the sense that he defined them as people of worth. Before the culture of Christ permeated the Roman world, children were considered property, not people. They were used as slaves, often for sex, and infants were left on the street to die. Baby girls were left more often which meant more boys than girls, which meant more tension among adults and more abuse of women. When Jesus gave children value, the paradigm shift was global. And to think God did it by sending a baby, so we could no longer question what God really thinks about children and about the value of life.

Let’s talk about women. Paul said, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). This was a radical statement, and it flowed out of Jesus’ own treatment of women. He made sure there was a place for them in the story of God. Women were with the disciples as they traveled. Women funded ministry. Women were last at the cross, first at the tomb and first to be told to go and tell the others. Jesus offered a paradigm that values women, children, the poor, the oppressed, the ones who never knew they had the favor of God. That changed everything.

And that changed education. Here’s what happens when people start thinking of other people as people. The next step is an improvement in basic human rights, beginning with education. One of the most radical social statements of Paul was his permission he gave women to learn (1 Timothy 2;11). It meant admitting that women had potential beyond their ability to bear children. And as Christianity progressed, schools became part of the Great Commission. Some of the finest academic institutions in the world were begun by Christians. Literacy is a Christian value. Global literacy was introduced with the movable press, and the first book printed on the Gutenberg press? The Bible.

Christianity opened us up to love. Jesus gave us a charge to love the hard ones — those who are sick and in prison and those who are poor. We’re told over and over in the Bible to make room in our hearts and lives for widows and orphans. This led to the development of what we now call hospitals. One of the early Councils of church leaders (the Council of Nyssa) made it a standard that every church should be attached to a place that cares for sick and poor people.

Jesus made humility and forgiveness cool. Philippians 2 explains the crucifixion and its value of humility in such clear terms. He humbled himself even unto death as a way of serving humanity and that personality trait changed the way a hierarchical world valued humility as a virtue. Conan the Barbarian was once famously asked, “What is best in life?” This was his answer: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women.” In contrast, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:43). Hannah Arendt, a professor at Princeton, goes so far as to say that, “The discoverer of the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs was Jesus of Nazareth.” That is quite a claim.

Jesus changed the way we value people. The hymn Amazing Grace was written by John Newton, a slave trader who became a Christian as a result of a miracle on his ship. He continued to trade in slaves for years after his conversion but eventually God changed his heart, and he wrote a scathing pamphlet read by every member of the British Parliament, entitled, “Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade.” He said, “It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.” It was a Christian emperor who banned gladiator fights, and it has been Christian missionaries who have helped humans end the practice of cannibalism.

Christians have made some of the most profound scientific discoveries. One of the biggest misconceptions of our faith that somehow science and Christianity stand in opposition to each other, when in fact, Christianity promotes the idea of a rational God as Intelligent Designer. We consider our God the inventor of the scientific laws discovered by Christian scientists — Galileo, Keppler, Boyle, Pascal, Pasteur, Newton, Schaeffer. Stanley Jaki was a physicist who famously developed the theory that, “modern scientific inquiry cannot only exist alongside religion, but that modern science only could have arisen within a Christian society.” Francis Bacon said he practiced science as a way to learn more about God. He wrote, “A little philosophy inclines man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy brings men’s minds about to religion.”

What Christians believe has fundamentally changed the course of human history. The change was in process with the Jewish people, but Jesus — the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ — changed everything. And because of that, our day to day circumstances are not the ground of our hope. The only circumstances in which we can place hope are the circumstances surrounding the birth, death & resurrection of Jesus, and on our acceptance of those circumstances. If we place our hope in anything else, we set ourselves up for disappointment.

This is the message of Christmas. It is a message to the world that our Messiah has come and his coming changes everything at the most basic level. This baby changes my value, changes my capacity for forgiveness, changes my personality, changes my potential for understanding the world around me. This Son of God has chosen to reside in my heart, and in the hearts of all who invite him, and claiming that as my hope … changes everything.

Read More

How to kill the thing that is killing you

Here’s a truth: Jesus doesn’t save people from sinning. He saves us as sinners. So in the Apostles’ Creed, when we say we believe in the forgiveness of sins, we are effectively placing ourselves in that category of people whose lives need forgiveness and whose status when Jesus found us was “sinner.”

We believe in the forgiveness of sins because we needed it but much more, we believe in it because it works.

It is bizarre, what we do with sin. Most of us work so hard to protect our sins while they work so hard to kill us. We deny our sin and defer blame and — as E. Stanley Jones once said — “attempt to live against the nature of reality and get away with it.” We make it all about other people, and we deny our part and make excuses. We lie in both directions by lying to one another while we lie to ourselves.

To win at the sin game, the enemy needs us to learn the language of lying. He needs us to become fluent in deceit and denial. He needs us to hide things, hide truth, hide fear, hide our sin because as long as we’re hiding things, he’s in control. Always remember that the enemy of your soul would rather you lie. He’d rather you hide things, because everything in the dark belongs to the enemy while everything in the light belongs to Jesus.

The last weapon the enemy has once a person makes a move toward light and truth is to speak shame into your spirit. He will be like that desperate child who has just gotten in trouble at WalMart, pitifully bargaining on the way out the door to his punishment. He will tell you everything you want to hear and when that doesn’t work, he’ll throw shame at you, making you feel bad not just for what you’ve done but for who you are.

This is why the truth that there is no shame in Christ is so critical. Until we really believe there is no shame in Christ, we will work like crazy to protect our sin. But when we really believe it — that truth sets us free, that there is no shame in Jesus, that living in the light is better than banging around in the darkness — then things begin to make peace. We take confession for what it is: a freedom and a gift. As we bring our junk into the light, the two warring sides that live inside of us pull together. When it comes to admitting our crap, it is critical to remember that truth is not shame-producing but freedom-producing.

Confession — adding truth into the sin equation — is an amazing thing. Confession is how I begin to walk out this fundamental belief that Jesus at his core is for me. Confession is how I join the ranks of those who don’t just say they believe in the forgiveness of sins, but actually participate in it.

Maybe the most powerful step in the 12 steps is step four, where we’re asked to make a searching and fearless moral inventory. A moral inventory is a list of all those memories we have of hurting others and of being hurt. To take a moral inventory, we take time to engage our past and our guilt and our hurts. We sit down with pen and paper and honestly write out everything we can remember about our life that hurts. This step isn’t a one-cup-of-coffee process. It may take weeks. Or even years. Doesn’t matter. The point is to get started.

“Fearless” is a key word in the process. Fearless means I believe in the forgiveness of sins. It means I trust that if I show God my sin, he won’t toss shame in my face. Fearless means I want to learn the language of heaven. Fearless means I’m tired of defending the very sins that have been trying to destroy me.

What have I felt guilty about? What have I regretted? Who has hurt me, and who have I hurt? What are the broken relationships in my life that need to be acknowledged? Who do I need to forgive? These are the kinds of questions we work through when we engage in a fearless, moral inventory. And we do it in writing because it helps us untangle the memories and think realistically about the people and events in our past. When we take a moral inventory, we go beyond waving a hand over our whole life with a general statement like, “God, I’ve been bad. Forgive me” (or worse yet, “God, if I’ve done anything wrong, I’m sorry …”). Taking written stock causes us to name the demons, to acknowledge the pain, to pinpoint the issues that need to be dealt with. And to do it in the language of Jesus (confession), not the language of the enemy of our soul (denial and deception). It isn’t easy or pretty, but it is good.

Listen: Either dark wins, or light wins. Confession is the weapon that fights the darkness. Confession is freedom. Confession proves we believe in the forgiveness of sins.

My friends, don’t work so hard to protect your sin. Kill it, before it kills you.

Read More

When the Church Hurts (part three)

This post is part three in a three-part series of thoughts about dealing with conflict in the church.  In our first post, we looked at biblical stories that model healthy and redemptive responses to conflict. The second post began addressing practical ways to maturely deal with unresolved anger and conflict from a biblical place. In this post, we continue exploring ways to respond redemptively to conflict. Find the first three points in the second post

People come and go from churches, jobs and even their own homes for as many reasons as there are people. Some reasons are valid — a geographical move, or a family circumstance — but not all reasons are created equal. Some people simply misunderstand the nature of community or the work of the Body of Christ. Some of us are self-seeking and some of us are broken. We are easily wounded, easily distracted. Many of our decisions come not from what we know about ourselves, but from what we don’t know about ourselves.

The Church of Jesus Christ has a high bar to reach in its mission. It is here among us to offer the truth of Jesus Christ, freedom from sin and the fear of death, healing of wounds, and an authentic, loving, supportive community in which our new lives can be redeemed, healed, and shaped for significance.

Only in community can we become whole and healthy, everything we were designed to be. Christianity isn’t self-serving, nor can it happen in a vacuum. Community is essential, but communities are made of people — broken, wounded, in-process people — and because of that, conflict is inevitable. Hurt people hurt people. When that happens, the best recourse is repentance and reconciliation. The only way to learn how to live in healthy community is to live through the hard times.

But what about when leaving seems the healthiest option? In our last post, I offered three places to begin. Here are three more:

4. Offer peace.  “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).

Bitterness chokes the Holy Spirit’s ability to move, both in individuals and in the church. No matter what the cost to our pride, schedule or plans, we are called to make peace with anyone who has hurt us or whom we have hurt. If we explore every creative opportunity that might lead to healing, God will surely bless us.

Sometimes going back is the best way to move forward. If we are still angry with someone at another church, then perhaps God is calling us go back, offer forgiveness and get closure. Even if we don’t go back to stay, it is both wise and biblical to go back and make peace. In making amends, we discover that we don’t have to keep talking about the past because we’ve made peace with it. Take the challenge to make this step for the sake of the Body of Christ. Visit during the week or call. In some positive way, let the pastor and others know you are at peace so they can move on. Paul said this was the ministry of Jesus: “He came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to you who were near, for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:18).

5. Write a note of blessing. After Paul split from Barnabas, he took time in another letter to defend the work of his brother in ministry. What a positive and grace-filled act! A written word of blessing can be such healing medicine. It can remind someone we’ve loved of the good times and of the ways they contributed to our faith. When we offer grace-filled and hopeful words in an email, text or note, we create open doors for future opportunities. After all, they may need us again one day … or we may need them!

Once we’ve learned to speak positively about the congregations we leave behind, we’ve prayed through our disappointments, we’ve offered forgiveness where it was needed and extended the hand of peace, now – and only now! – we are ready to commit fully to the ministry of a new congregation.

6. Make a solid commitment to your new church. Partial or uncommitted attendance in church is not healthy or helpful.

Let me say that again: Partial or uncommitted attendance in church is not healthy or helpful. It misses the point of authentic community, which is what the Body of Christ is designed to be. Simply put, you can’t be part of a community you’re not part of.

Likewise, bouncing between churches can send negative signals and create unneeded tension. Doing so implies that my feelings are the ones that matter most and that simply isn’t part of a healthy Christian worldview. We find healing in stepping outside ourselves and becoming fully a part of the work going on around us.

So dig in. Invest in the time it takes to understand the vision of a new community of faith. Every church is unique and has a unique place in the community. We recognize that what worked in another church may not be right for this new mission. God delights in doing new things, so we want to be open to new ideas and to discovering new spiritual gifts. We must bloom where we are planted. Then when we are given a place to serve, we can support that work wholeheartedly — with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service and our witness.

Read More

When the Church Hurts (part two)

This post is part two in a three-part series of thoughts about dealing with conflict in the church.  In our last post, we looked at biblical stories that model healthy and redemptive responses to conflict.  In this post, we address some practical ways we, too, can respond redemptively to conflict.

Back in my college days, I had a professor who was convinced that the concept of community was at the root of all other philosophical discussions around building healthy societies. When I was in seminary, I visited The Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C. and heard Gordon Cosby talk eloquently about the the central role of community in all Kingdom-advancing work. Those two voices in my life have deeply shaped what I believe about the nature and role of the Church. I believe the Church plays a key role in the reclamation of the world. By promoting healthy, committed communities that follow Jesus faithfully, we model his life and become an answer to his prayer: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth …”

Modeling healthy communities depends on mastering healthy conflict. Until a community of faith learns to deal constructively (redemptively, graciously, maturely) with its differences, it will not be able to move forward with spiritual and emotional maturity. The first option ought always to be for those with issues to lean in and work it out. In this post, we will think practically about how Jesus’ people ought to act when working it out doesn’t work.

What happens when it is time to leave?

1. If you can’t say something nice …  The first step toward reconciliation is learning how to speak graciously. We serve no positive purpose by talking negatively about another church – even those of which we’ve been part. Our negative comments about the Body of Christ can hurt others. 

If the conflict in a previous church is significant, then many folks who are still there are still hurting. Some of them are also innocent by-standers – people who did nothing to cause conflict. When we make negative comments about their church we can cause great harm.

Likewise, we must be sensitive to those in our present Christian circles. We must be sensitive especially to the members of our new church family by not involving them in the conflict of another church. Strongly resist sharing negative stories or comparing churches. To do so only plants seeds of bitterness in a fresh field. What our mothers said really is true: if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. 

Better yet, find something nice to say. Kindness is a wonderful antidote to bitterness.  As Paul said to the Philippians: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is commendable, whatever is pure and pleasing, if there is anything of excellence or anything worthy of praise, think on these things” (Philippians 4:8).

2. Keep praying. Pray, and pray some more. Nothing else will do more to create a healing environment in your soul. Keep the prayer lines open but understand that reconciliation is a process, not an event. Healing doesn’t happen overnight.  In fact, you may need to talk not just to God but to a human being in order to heal. If that is the case, then seek out the listening ear and prayer support of a trusted friend who can help to process the thoughts. Be honest with them and ask them to walk with you spiritually through this time. Ask them to pray for you and hold you accountable until you reach a place of peace and reconciliation with all parties involved.

3. If you can’t say something nice (part two) … “Search me O God and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.  See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24).

While it is always better to stay quiet if we can’t say something nice, God will usually challenge us to go a step further. After all, even if we manage to keep quiet about our pain and anger, our inability to think positively about the church we’ve left likely indicates a deeper brokenness that needs to be acknowledged and explored. If we can’t seem to think kind thoughts or say nice things about the people of another church or group, then why is that? What is the real source of that anger, that pain? 

To answer that question for yourself, set aside time to be with the Lord. Ask for his insight.  Rarely if ever will God allow us to simply bury our pain and move on. When we seek him in prayer and ask for the mind of Christ, he will show us where we have failed as well as where we have been wounded by others. When we ask, he will show us a path to forgiveness that likely includes praying God’s best over those with whom we are in conflict. Journaling may help in that process. Again, the help of a trusted friend and a strong prayer partner is invaluable. The pastor or perhaps even an outside counselor may be a good step at this point.

Churches are made of people, and wounded people can do painful things to one another. Our responses to others’ brokenness says a lot more about us than them. Learning to respond to pain with grace is a gift to the Church and a strike against the darkness.

Find part three in this series of posts here

Read More

When the Church Hurts (part one)

“Must we always be killing each other? Don’t you realize that bitterness is the only result?” said Abner to Joab, as the sun went down. (from the battlefield at Gibeon, 2 Samuel 2:26)

We are people. And people, by definition, are broken. If we are followers of Jesus, we are saved by grace but we are broken, just the same.

The church, then, is nothing more than a collection of broken-but-redeemed people. Many of us come through the door of the church hurting, not yet sanctified. We bump into one another and create friction. It seems almost inevitable that in the church, just as in the world, there is conflict. As they say, hurt people hurt people.

Since the very beginning, conflict in the church has been part of the Christian experience. Surely God would prefer if it wasn’t that way, but that fact doesn’t erase reality. The early church understood this fact all too well. The letter Paul wrote to the people of Corinth was sent to one of the most divided, dysfunctional churches of the first century. Even Paul himself was not immune. When Paul and Barnabas made plans to go out on a second missionary journey (Acts 15), Barnabas wanted to take John Mark along. Paul was bitterly opposed. John Mark was the one who deserted them in Pamphylia on the first trip; if he was not able to withstand the pressures of real ministry, why rely on him again? Barnabas wanted to extend grace, but Paul dug his feet in. By the time their conflict reached its peak, they’d split. Barnabas and Mark set off in one direction, while Paul and his team went off in another.

How they worked through that conflict made all the difference in how God used them to impact the world for Christ. Acts 15:40 says that as they parted company, they commended one another to the service of the Lord.

Later on in another letter Paul would speak in defense of Barnabas (1 Corinthians 9:6) and he would work again with John Mark (2 Timothy 4:11). As a result (Acts 16:5), “the churches were strengthened in the faith and increased in numbers daily.”

Because they were willing to handle conflict creatively and gracefully, God was able to continue to work through them. It is likely that if Paul and Barnabas had separated bitterly and continued to backbite and harbor anger toward one another, neither of them would have been much use for God’s kingdom. But as it was, they were able to double their effectiveness while presenting a positive and mature approach to conflict within community.

What about us? Many of us have moved from one community of faith to another. For some, this was an easy move and healing came quickly. For others of us, though, hurts from the past will take time (even years) to heal. And it might be easy to believe there is nothing to be done about that.

Yet as Christians, we are given the ministry of reconciliation by Jesus Christ himself, who came expressly for that purpose. Maybe conflict in church is inevitable (remember – we are all broken), but healing can happen when we react creatively and graciously. In fact, as we saw with Paul and Barnabas, God can use both conflict and healing to further the Kingdom.

There are Christ-centered ways to deal with brokenness in all its forms. We can participate with Christ in healing after conflict. What practical steps can we take to find peace with the church we’ve left so we can bring a healthy spirit to the church we are ready to serve? A few ideas taken from my own experience as a pastor will follow in the next two posts.

Meanwhile, maybe these questions will help you process your own experience. Learning to process conflict is ultimately about building a healthy church culture. How are you participating in that process?

  • Have you ever had a negative church experience? Are there any unresolved hurts from that experience that need to be acknowledged?
  • Are you at peace with everyone in your church? How about with everyone in the church you left? Do you need to extend a gesture of grace to anyone?
  • What are you doing in your current church or small group to promote mature, loving relationships?

This post is one of three in a series about how to navigate church relationships in the midst of conflict and change. Find part two here.

Read More